In 50 years of watching rugby, I have to be honest I can’t remember the last time the annual summer tours by the Northern Hemisphere have ended with all series needing to be decided in game 3. As a result we are in for a truly spectacular Saturday this weekend, akin to Super Saturday in the Six Nations. Ireland look to try and create history by building on their first ever win against the All Blacks in New Zealand by claiming an unprecedented series victory. England will attempt to carry the momentum of last weekend’s win over Australia, to clinch a series themselves. Meanwhile in South Africa, Wales look to create the upset of the year as they seek to topple the Springbok colossus and claim a series win despite being perhaps the most outrageous but brave underdogs of all the teams this year. Lastly, Scotland’s new kids on the block look to claim a series in the physical cauldron that is Argentina. In short, there’s plenty of potential history in the making and plot lines to follow this Saturday. If you love our glorious game, it will be almost impossible to tear yourself away from the TV for eight hours, so best make excuses with family and friends now, as it’s unlikely they will be seeing much of you on Saturday!
New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, July 16th – Wellington
After producing a win for the ages last weekend, Ireland attempt to take it one further by winning a series against New Zealand in the All Blacks back yard. The last team to do this was France almost 30 years ago, so despite the euphoria of last weekend, the enormity of the task they have set themselves is no doubt at the forefront of their planning this week. New Zealand, meanwhile although no doubt smarting from last weekend’s loss, very rarely come unstuck twice in a row on home soil, and a wounded All Black team on its own turf is an exceptionally dangerous animal, whatever it’s shape or form. Both sides have brought out the big guns for this one, with Ireland needing to last the distance at the final hurdle in a long and challenging season, while New Zealand simply need to harness their collective will and shape it into some sort of platform as opposed to a collection of insanely gifted individuals.
New Zealand once more weld together a unit of Test rugby superstars but one that seems to struggle to fire as a unit, relying more on the individual talents of the players themselves. Still, despite the coaching, or as many are saying lack of it, the unifying force of pulling on that black jersey in front of your home crowd and not letting them down when your backs are against the wall is a powerful unifying force. We don’t rate the New Zealand front row unfortunately and feel that discipline is its Achilles Heel against a more composed Irish unit that clearly rediscovered its mojo last weekend. New Zealand can take heart in one of the most established and competent second row partnerships in Test Rugby in the shape of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick and their collective rage about the events of last weekend will be a potent force. The back row of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Scott Barrett will be looking to make similar amends even if as a unit they don’t quite click – nevertheless there is so much individual brute force and talent amongst the three of them that it can cover for any collective deficiencies. In the half backs, we continue to struggle with the scrum half selections. The Highlanders pair of Aaron Smith and Folau Fakatava did nothing to really impress us last weekend and for such a crucial Test surely Finlay Christie would have been an option on the bench? Fly half Beauden Barrett is a remarkable player as an individual but often seems one move ahead of the rest of his team who struggle to keep up with his lightning quick thinking. It’s a powerful center pairing of Rieko Ioane and David Havilli, but the jury is still out for us on Havili’s efficiency at times. The out wide duo of Sevu Reece and at long last a starting berth for Will Jordan spells trouble for Ireland, with Jordan who seems able to score tries at will likely to expose James Lowe’s well documented defensive frailties for Ireland, and Jordi Barrett at the back spells reliability and a boot to get them out of jail. Blues sensation center Roger Tuivasa-Sheck gets a spot on the bench as does the vastly talented Hooker Dane Coles and fly half Richie Mo’unga who we’d argue is more effective at linking together the All Blacks vast array of individual talents than Barrett. Akira Ioane and Dalton Papali’i shore up the back row replacements and we have to admit to being surprised to see Papali’i not getting a starting berth, especially if Ireland are allowed to get off to a flying start. It’s a blockbuster All Black offering but it really needs to work as a unit as against Ireland it’s world class individual talents may not be enough.
For Ireland, it’s essentially business as usual after last weekend. Their front row of Andrew Porter, Tadgh Furlong and Dan Sheehan was immense last weekend with Sheehan being much more accurate with his lineout throwing. Tadgh Beirne was utterly outstanding as Ireland’s raging bull in the second row last weekend and they’ll need more of the same from him this weekend. Peter O’Mahony was magnificent in the back row for Ireland last weekend, even managing a beautifully executed 50/22 while Caelan Doris literally erupted out of the woodwork after essentially being AWOL in the first Test, and we simply can’t say enough good things about Josh van der Flier. The half back pairing of Jamison Gibson-Park and Jonathan Sexton was a master class in game management under pressure. Bundee Aki deputized exceptionally well for the injured Gary Ringrose and his physicality this weekend will be vital against the All Black axis of Ioane and Havili. James Lowe will really need to have his A-game on this Saturday to contain Will Jordan and if he passes the Test and shuts the All Black winger down, all of his defensive liabilities can be put to bed ahead of the World Cup. Fullback Hugo Keenan much like Caelan Doris in the back row was back to his best last weekend and Ireland will need him and winger Mack Hansen to be on song. It’s an Irish bench that can stand up to most of what New Zealand can offer, but big games will be needed from Joey Carberry if Jonathan Sexton can’t last the distance and Conor Murray at scrum half will need to calm things down if New Zealand are running rampant. Lastly a huge shout out to one of our favorite players, winger Keith Earls who led Ireland so well in this week’s midweek Test against the Maori All Blacks – an old dog still with plenty of X-factor.
Ireland will be frustrated with their inability to turn their 2 man advantage last week into points on the board, leading many to wonder if Ireland actually struggles to find a rhythm against anything less than a full strength opposition side – it’s almost as if they don’t know what to do with all that extra space. New Zealand meanwhile will need to batten down the hatches play a bit more as a collective as opposed to a who’s who of international rugby superstars. We are set for a an epic Test match of that there is little doubt. It’s hard to see New Zealand stumble twice in a row on home soil, but for Ireland the opportunity to make history is going to provide some rather special motivation. Our hearts say Ireland, but ultimately we think New Zealand may end up edging this Titanic arm wrestle. Either way strap yourselves in folks you’re not going to want to miss a second!!!!
Australia vs England – Saturday, July 16th – Sydney
England despite all the criticisms levelled at controversial Coach Eddie Jones, came storming back last weekend to wrestle back control of a series that seemed destined to slip away from them. Australia meanwhile took a casualty list from hell in the process and experienced a crisis of confidence after a first half which saw England blitz them 19-0. They recovered nicely in the second half and got themselves back in the match but at a physical cost it may be difficult to sustain for three weeks running. England brought their bruising physicality to Brisbane and made it count. They’ll need more of the same this weekend, while Australia will need to keep a cool head and not get sucked into the fray, allowing their exciting backs to dictate play and ensure that it’s England who tire first.
Australia’s discipline along with the injury list really hampered their efforts last weekend, and consistent infringements and difficulties in the set pieces from their front row contributed heavily to their ongoing woes. Prop Taniela Tupou is a supremely gifted athlete but unfortunately seems to be a permanent fixture on referees’ radars. Continuing losses in the Wallabies second row stocks sees the Brumbies Nick Frost drafted in alongside Matthew Philip who still remains one of our favorite next gen Wallabies. Shoring up the back row is Rob Valetini who really was not at the races last weekend unlike in the first Test, and the Reds irrepressible Harry Wilson would make a better fit in our opinion at 8 and shift Valetini to the blindside. It’s the other way around instead for this match, but with Captain Fantastic Michael Hooper in the mix it’s still a steady ship, though the Wallaby leader needs to up his game from last weeekend. It remains “steady as she goes” with Nic White and Noah Lolesio in the halfbacks, while in midfield Hunter Paisami continues on alongside Samu Kerevi who has arguably been the most impressive Wallaby of the series. Tom Wright and Marika Koroibete showed what they could do last weekend out wide, it’s just that they didn’t get nearly enough opportunities to showcase their exceptional talents and the Wallabies will need to get the powerful pair into space as much as possible on Saturday. Lastly the Wallabies bring in the “siege gun” Reece Hodge at the back to get them out of awkward situations and go for those long range penalty kicks if they can cause England’s discipline to crack. We really like the look of that Australian bench which could make the last quarter a very exciting affair to say the least, especially if the rather extraordinary athleticism of winger Suliasi Vunivalu gets put on display.
For England, Jones being Jones simply can’t resist tinkering with an otherwise winning formula. There are no surprises in him keeping the front row of Ellis Genge, Jamie George and Will Stuart who made life so torrid for Australia last weekend, though we could do without more scenes of Genge providing Wallaby players with gratuitous neck massages on the floor. Jonny Hill’s hairdressing skills in the second row also don’t really need to be on display despite the apparent value of “niggling the opposition”. We are happy to see Ollie Chessum partner Hill this week, after impressing off the bench last weekend, and Lewis Ludlam gets a well deserved start in the back row after consistently standing up off the bench in the first two Tests. Ludlam is ably assisted with a form defying Billy Vunipola and an increasingly effective Courtney Lawes. After turning heads last weekend, we have to admit we question the wisdom of putting Jack van Poortvliet on the bench in favor of Danny Care, but can only assume that Jones is trying to recreate the chemistry that fly half Marcus Smith and Care create week in week out in the Premiership at Harlequins. It didn’t quite pan out in the first Test so let’s hope for England’s sake that third time’s the charm. Owen Farrell and Smith seemed to figure out how best to work off each other last weekend, often by not working together at all and simply letting themselves do what they do best as individuals when the situation called for it. Freddie Steward was back to his very best at fullback and Jack Nowell’s penchant for trying to be all things to all men as opposed to being just a winger actually paid off last weekend, while Tommy Freeman made a solid debut and is rewarded with a starting berth once more. We’re hoping we’re going to see Poortvliet off the bench sooner rather than later, along with Henry Arundell on the wing. However, once more England pack a very competent bench poised to take control in the final quarter if some first aid is required.
This should prove to be a blinder of a Test match. Australia seem to be once more suffering a crisis of confidence and unlike their rivals across the Tasman, the All Blacks, they rarely manage to turn adversity into strength. England are reveling in some new found confidence and the motivation to come from behind and claim a series win will be a powerful tonic. We’d argue it’s England’s series to lose with all the pressure being on an injury hit Wallaby squad. However, think back to last year and the Wallabies clinching the series against France in similar circumstances – the similarities are there in abundance so write them off at your peril. However, we have a hunch that England’s brute force may just have the edge for this series, allied to some rather silky skills in the backs that are easily the equal of Australia’s powerful pacesetters. Everything on the line for two teams desperate to silence their doubters – in short you are unlikely to be getting up off the couch after the showdown in Wellington and the start of the debate in Sydney, other than for a quick top up of coffee if you’re watching it live or a dash to the fridge if you’re on demand!!!
South Africa vs Wales – Saturday, July 16th – Cape Town
Just when you thought it was safe to drag yourself away from your TV set, we think the suspense of yet another series decider will be too much for you. It’s a quick bathroom break/coffee/ale top up and you’re back at it with the third of this weekend’s thrillers, especially given that this series was technically supposed to be done and dusted in the Springboks favor before the opening whistle in the first Test. As we’ve said before, the Welsh simply love taking the form book and throwing it out the window. They relish the underdog tag, and when it comes to down and out bravery in the face of overwhelming adversity there are few sides who can match them. South Africa are clearly struggling to get the measure of this Welsh team. A rather surprising set of selection decisions by the Springbok coaching staff last weekend added to their woes as Wales pipped them by one point. Despite an all star Springbok cast in the first Test, Wales just simply refused to lie down. In short, South Africa have found this series exceptionally hard work. As a result they simply couldn’t have asked for better preparation as they are set to host the All Blacks for two Tests next month as part of the Rugby Championship. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine Wales’ luck continuing to hold out against a final do or die Springbok assault this weekend in Cape Town.
As we mentioned in this week’s podcast review of last weekend’s second Test, we admire the bravery of the selection decisions by Coach Jacques Nienaber. He wanted to see what depth looks like under pressure, and in that respect think he gained more answers than questions. Let’s also be honest, that so called B or even C side of Springbok newbies, didn’t exactly get thrashed by a Welsh A team last weekend – there was only one point in it and if Handre Pollard had brought his kicking boots it would have been a completely different end result. This week it’s a powerhouse front row of Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe up against a Welsh unit that is a fantastic example of bravery under fire but may not last the distance. In the second row their enforcer Eben Etzebeth, becomes the youngest ever Springbok centurion at the tender age of 30, and is once more partnered with the incomparable Lood de Jager. One of our favorite Springboks of recent years, Pieter-Steph du Toit will be keen to make amends for his yellow card last weekend in his first foray in a green jersey since injury layoff. Meanwhile Jaspar Wiese and Siya Kolisi need to notch the intensity they showed in the first Test up a few more gears. In a surprising call, Jaden Hendrikse gets the nod at scrum half over Faf de Klerk who is resigned to the bench for this one. We can understand some of the reasoning but still felt he had a 50/50 game last weekend, and despite de Klerk not having the best form he still has the experience for a down to the wire experience like this. Handre Pollard needs to bring his kicking boots at fly half which last weekend he clearly left in Montpellier. South Africa will need to use their dynamic duo of Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi out wide much more than they did in the first Test, while Lukhanyo Am needs to be much more involved in creating opportunities this weekend. Those three are pure World Class in their own right but as a unit allied to the increasingly impressive Damian de Allende they could be unstoppable on Saturday. Damian Willemse at fullback despite rescuing his teammates in the first Test, still leaves us with a few question marks however. The Bomb Squad are reunited on the bench, and Elrigh Louw gets another chance to impress off the bench alongside Franco Mostert. In short it’s a very solid Springbok bench set to turn the tide should the first half not go according to plan.
For Wales, it’s pretty much business as usual after that nail-biting win last week. They’ll need to watch their discipline as we doubt that Handre Pollard will be as wayward with the boot as he was last weekend. Their lineout work still needs to improve and all eyes will be on Ryan Elias in that respect and the jumpers Adam Beard and Will Rowlands, with the latter being a standout performer on this tour. Having said that though the Welsh scrum stood up surprisingly well in the second Test despite the caliber of their opponents. The big talking point though for Wales has been how good back rower Tommy Refell has been. The superlatives have been pouring in and the 23 year old is already being tipped as Captain material. The contest between him and Siya Kolisi this weekend is definitely one you’ll want to focus on, but a shout out also has to go to Dan Lydiate who has simply tackled like a demon. Kieran Hardy continues to grow into the role of scrum half at Test Level and Dan Biggar seemed to get his amateur dramatics with referees under control last weekend. Out wide Wales have wisely stuck with their own Batman and Robin combo of Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit, but could still use a bigger performance from their centers with all eyes on George North who just hasn’t stood out this tour. As always veteran Liam Williams shores up the rearguard and if you want reliability in your last line of defense there are few better individuals to turn to. It’s a solid Welsh bench that can absorb some punishment, and after Dan Biggar was subbed off last weekend, Gareth Anscombe really rose to the occasion, and that final conversion at the death was to be admired as it showed some exceptionally calm nerves under pressure. Alun Wyn-Jones will want to make a statement after the bizarre yellow card he was handed which made no sense whatsoever.
It’s an exceptionally big occasion for both sides and make no mistake Wales are up for this and then some! However, in front of a packed stadium in the “Mother City” it’s unlikely that the Springboks will falter, especially given the World Cup winning quality of the personnel assembled. If Wales can come out of the whole encounter with the scores close at the final whistle, then while they may lose the series they can board the plane home knowing that their bravery against the odds is intact and that any side thinking that a game against Wales in next year’s World Cup is a soft ride is seriously delusional.
Argentina vs Scotland – Saturday, July 16th – Santiago del Estero
Scotland a bit like Wales have clearly defied the odds on this tour. Three matches in Argentina is not for the faint hearted. The Pumas may be rebuilding and adjusting to life under new Coach Michael Cheika, but Argentina is a big, powerful and fleet of foot team with some rather unique skills. The battles that have taken place in the foothills of the Andes these past two weeks, have given Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend’s charges an excellent dose of what a hard life on the road looks like. For Argentina, after the euphoria of playing in front of their adoring fans for the first time in three years and an impressive victory in the first Test, it’s now time to brush last weekend’s wobbles under the carpet. It’s showtime in Santiago del Estero and a big result is absolutely imperative for Cheika and his charges ahead of a two tour visit from the Australian’s old outfit, the Wallabies, as part of the Rugby Championship next month.
For Argentina, we are thrilled to see Thomas Gallo get a call up to the front row, after his heroics last year on debut and a solid season with Benetton. Agustin Creevy had the crowd on their feet last weekend and expect the same again as the veteran Hooker and Captain still has that talismanic quality for the team. Tomas Lavanini returns to the second row alongside the outstanding Guido Petti, but the disciplinary alarm bells are always a concern for the big lock, even though he has cleaned up his game considerably since the World Cup. However, his commitment to the cause is never in doubt – just watch him tearing up during the anthems. Facundo Isa is looking increasingly impressive and Pablo Matera will be keen to reinstate his influence on the national squad in the back row after his season in New Zealand with the Crusaders – though like Lavanini he’ll need to monitor his discipline. 7s star Lautaro Bazan Velez makes his debut for the Pumas at scrum half while Cheika continues the work necessary in moulding Santiago Carreras into Nicolas Sanchez’s understudy, and despite the loss last weekend we though Carreras was one of the best Pumas players on the field. We are also excited to see the return of Bautista Delguy on the wing and Duhan van der Merwe will have his hands full keeping the slippery winger in check. It’s a solid Argentinian bench with some big guns on it like Marcos Kremer, but we’re also interested to see if Benetton fly half Tomas Albornoz gets a look in on Saturday.
For Scotland, there is plenty of interest in Canadian born Hooker Ewan Ashman’s performance in the starting fifteen. The lineout in particular has been a real concern for Scotland this tour, even if the wind in Salta last weekend wasn’t exactly helping. There’s another change to the second row with Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray, and we’re not overly sure why to be honest. However, that Scottish back row of Hamish Watson, who also gets the Captain’s armband for this match, Rory Darge and Matt Fagerson looked the real deal last weekend and clearly got the better of their Pumas opponents. In the halfbacks, we would have preferred to see Ben White keep his starting position at scrum half after last weekend, however, this Saturday with everything on the line, it’s back to the experience of Ali Price. It’s a potentially exciting center pairing in Scotland’s Mark Bennett and Sione Tuipolutu, with Bennett having a particularly good run last weekend, though whether or not they can get the better of established Pumas pair of Matias Moroni and Orlando remains to be seen. Rufus McLean needs to translate his club form to Test level status out wide as does Ollie Smith at fullback, and Duhan van der Merwe needs to continuing imposing his highveld bred physicality on the Argentinians. Scotland pack their own “Bomb Squad” on the bench in the shape of Dave Cherry, Pierre Schoeman and the rather impressive Javan Sebastian. Lastly we really want to see more of Ross Thompson off the bench at fly half especially if Blair Kinghorn manages to establish control early on.
As the finale to what promises to be a genuine “Super Saturday” of Test Rugby this should be a fascinating contest. A series win for Scotland would be a deeply satisfying end to a challenging road trip, while for Argentina national pride and rewarding their fans’ after a three year absence from Test Rugby will be paramount in the Pumas minds. Argentina may not fare so well on the road, but at home they are a different beast. They will meet Scotland again in the fall, but winning this series will announce to the world that they are back from the wilderness and give them a real boost of confidence ahead of Australia’s two Test visit next month, followed by a tough trip to New Zealand. As a result we can’t help feeling that provided Argentina can keep their discipline and cut out the errors that plagued them last weekend, the series is theirs to take this Saturday despite a very feisty Scottish challenge. Either way, even if you can’t take another two hours of rugby tomorrow after a six hour marathon if you’ve watched the first three series deciders, you’ll want to make this game mandatory viewing with your Sunday morning coffee!